In the Western world, the past has become the target of an ideological crusade. Many of its historic monuments and symbols are being vandalised, defaced or destroyed altogether. Pictured: The vandalised statue of educator Sophie Bell Wright, whose father served in the Confederate Army, on July 10, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Michael DeMocker/Getty Images)
From Europe, the culture war raging in the United States is disturbing. In the presidential election, it seems that radical anti-American forces are questioning the very foundation on which Western civilisation was built. The New York Times seems too similar to the propaganda we were fed by the Hungarian Stalinist Pravda during the days of communist tyranny.
Contaminating the Past
In the Western world, the past has become the target of an ideological crusade. Many of its historic monuments and symbols are being vandalised, defaced or destroyed altogether. In the United States, the national flag has been treated with derision and denounced by leading members of its cultural institutions as a symbol of racism, oppression and discrimination. Commentators have been regularly condemning their nation's past and portraying it as a source of irredeemable shame.
In recent times, hostility towards the very foundation on which different Western nations rest has acquired a systematic form. This trend is most strikingly articulated by The New York Times' 1619 Project -- to devalue and criminalise the founding of the United States.
Through distorting America's history, this project claims that the year 1619, and not 1776, constitutes the origin of the United States. It was in 1619 that African slaves arrived in Jamestown, and this event has been rebranded as the origins of the US. Why? Because the 1619 Project insists that the US was founded for the purpose of entrenching slavery and that to this day, this nation is dominated by that legacy. According to this inaccurate version of the past, the American Revolution was not so much a war of independence but a selfish act of preserving exploitation and oppression. In this way, the contribution of the American Revolution to the development of the Western ideals of individual liberty and personal responsibility is erased from history. America's Declaration of Independence and -- especially for the time -- its remarkably advanced liberal and democratic Constitution and Bill of Rights are implicitly renounced as slave-owners' charters.
Most significantly, the 1619 project is designed to contaminate the tradition and foundation that underpins the opportunity and mobility that have come to characterise the American way of life. This attempt to vandalise the tradition of a nation and its historic memory is far more toxic than toppling over a statue. Certainly, one of the main authors of the 1619 project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, is in no doubt that her objective was to plunder the past in order to undermine the moral authority of present. Recently she responded to critics who claim that she has distorted history by stating on Twitter:
"I've always said that 1619 project is not history. It is a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative and therefore national memory. The project has always been as much about the present as it is about the past."
Hannah-Jones's explicit conflation of the present and the past should not be seen as an innocent disregard of fundamental temporal boundaries but as a project devoted to contaminating the past in order de-legitimate the institutions of the US in the present.
A script for the vandalisation of history
The way in which the authors of the 1619 Project attempt to seize control of the national narrative is by providing a simplistic, inaccurate but highly evocative script for members of the public. It is a script that many protestors, rioters and looters in the United States have effortlessly internalised. Hannah-Jones has little inhibition about promoting a script that regards not only the Founders of the US but members of the white race with contempt. As she noted in a 1995 letter to a newspaper, "the white race is the biggest murderer, rapist, pillager, and thief of the modern world". Her reference is not simply to the white people that settled America in the 17th and 18th centuries. She added:
"Even today, the descendants of these savage [white] people pump drugs and guns into the Balck community, pack Black people into the squalor of segregated urban ghettos, and continue ot be bloodsuckers in our community."
In a different world, the denunciation of an entire race would be interpreted as not a million miles from racist prejudice. We live in a world, however, where scripts like the one promoted by the 1619 Project are strongly supported by many of the cultural and educational institutions of society. It is after all The New York Times -- once the paper of record in the US -- that promoted and endorsed Hannah-Jones' narrative of hate towards the nation's past. And to demonstrate that Hannah-Jones enjoyed the moral support of the commentariat, she was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Hollywood celebrities rushed in to demonstrate their support for the 1619 Project. Predictably, Oprah Winfrey and the global content platform, Lionsgate, teamed up with Hannah-Jones to bring her work to an even wider audience through multiple platforms.
The embrace of the 1619 Project by celebrities, online influencers and leaders of America's cultural industry highlights one of the most important development that encourages the cancelling of American culture. The most significant feature of the war against the past is the complicity of cultural institutions and their leaders in the project of estranging society from its traditions and history.
It is not merely universities that promote a vision of the nation's past as one that people should view with shame. The claim that contemporary cultural institutions bear the burden of guilt for the crimes committed by their ancestors also seems to have been widely internalised by the cultural elites. According to their playbook, America's history is a story of unremitting violence and greed. There are no "good old days" that can serve as a focus for redemption and nostalgia. Instead of nostalgia, the current regime promoting a vision of the past as "the bad old days" incites guilt, shame and self-loathing. This corrosive orientation towards one's history invites the performance of apology. The ritualization of remorse towards the events of the past is one of the important accomplishments of this movement.
It seems that this election is not just about which candidate gets elected -- it is ultimately about America's commitment to empirical facts, its extraordinary Constitution and its determination to maintain its leadership role in the world by refusing to allow cheating and corruption, in either its elections or its governmental institutions. One can only hope that the ideals of the Founding Founders will prevail.
Frank Furedi's Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art Of Drawing Boundaries is published by Routledge.